'Hermes has entered our midst" - Gustav Hirschfeld's Discovery of “Hermes and the Infant Dionysus" in Olympia

8 April 1877, the German archaeologist Gustav Hirschfeld discovered a statue of Hermes in the cellar of the Heraion of Olympia.
 “The figures I have enumerated are of ivory and gold, but at a later date other images were dedicated in the Heraeum, including a marble Hermes carrying the baby Dionysus, a work of Praxiteles, and a bronze Aphrodite made by Cleon of Sicyon“ (Pausanias, “Description of Greece”)

Hermes with the infant Dionysus, at least probably, attributed to Praxiteles around the 4th century BCE, now at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia in Greece

The Persians, according to Herodotus, taught their sons three things alone: to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth. Thus, it is hardly surprising that they and the Greeks simply couldn’t get along. After all, the latter worshipped a pantheon shaped by a teller of tall tales full of deities who all were notorious liars. And one of them made lying left, right and centre an art form. Born to Maia, a daughter of Atlas and Zeus, the father of the gods who had a rather elastic relationship with truth himself, infant Hermes sneaked out of his cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia on the day of his birth and went all the way to Pieria, 250 miles to the north in Macedonia where his half-brother Apollo grazed his cattle. The juvenile rustler stole all 50 of them and hid their tracks by weaving twigs around their hooves like snowshoes. There was a witness, though, a vintner who informed on Hermes and Apollo hastened to Arcadia to confront the thieving godling. Infant Hermes, now two days old, played dumb and claimed that, at his age, he wouldn’t even know what a cow was. Apollo, though, insisted in legal action and brought the little liar before their father Zeus. Hermes lied like a trooper and managed to steal his brother’s bow and arrow in the process, just in case, but the father of the gods finally ruled that Hermes had to return the cows, no matter how. Fortunately, the future patron of thieves had invented the lyre on his raid into Pieria from a turtle shell, two cow’s horns and sheep gut, brought forth the instrument and began to play and sing so heartbreakingly that the god of music decided he must have the thing, offered the 50 cows in return, taught Hermes the art of prophecy and gave him the kerykeion, a winged staff with two snakes wrapped around it, his future trademark as messenger of the gods, an appointment Hermes received by Zeus immediately after said show trial. The Thunderer probably needed someone who was able to cloth something disposable as the truth in a finer garb on a more regular basis.

Ernst Curtius, his team and local workers, obviously dressed in Greek national garb for the occasion, during the excavations at Olympia (around 1875)

Two years after a team of German archaeologists, lead by Ernst Curtius, began their project of excavating and preserving the site of Ancient Olympia, Gustav Hirschfeld discovered a remarkable piece of art in the cellar of the Heraion, the large temple dedicated to the goddess Hera. Since the whole group had received a thorough classical education customary and was well-read in the contemporary accounts and travelogues depicting the ancient playing fields, Hirschfeld decided his find to be the “Hermes of Praxiteles” or “Hermes and the Infant Dionysus” mentioned in Pausanias’ “Description of Greece” from the second century CE. Whether this was a Hermetic act of clothing truth in a finer garb or a shot in the bull’s eye of archaeological sleuthing has been debated in circles of experts ever since. Why a statue of Hermes had been placed in a Heraion, of all the places, was not quite clear even in Pausanias’ days. After all, Hermes had saved his infant half-brother Dionysus from Hera’s wrath and hid him in Boeotia where the jealous goddess finally struck Dionysus’ foster father Athamas with a “Shining”-like madness. However, Praxiteles himself was probably the most renowned sculptor of Athens, living in the 4th century BCE, but there are indications that the Hermes might actually be a later Roman copy or not even one of Praxiteles’ works at all. Nonetheless, “Hermes and the Infant Dionysus” has been described as a masterpiece of sculpture from the late classical period and is besides “Apollo Sauroktonos, the “lizard killer”, Louvre) and Aphrodite of Cnidus (survived only in Roman copies, in Rome’s Capitoline Museum and elsewhere), the epitome of the ideal of the image of the youthful gods of Greek art. Hermes is obviously unfinished, though. While his front is smooth marble, almost glowing from the caress of generations of temple attendants, as the British art historian John Boardman once mentioned – no wonder, since Hermes almost looks like a young Paul Newman - preserved by soft earth over 1.500 years, his back is rough. In all probability either Praxiteles or his later Roman copyist never finished the job. Hermes right arm, maybe holding a bunch of grapes once, teasing young Dionysus with it and giving him ideas, is missing as well. Nonetheless the sculpture is still in excellent condition, showing even the traces of cinnabar in its hair that probably was once painted red.

Adolf Hiremy-Hirschl (1860 – 1933): “Souls on the Banks of the Acheron“ (1898), with Hermes having entered their midst in his role of psychopompos

Sales people obviously showed the essential ability to cloth truth in tall tales already in days of yore, since everyone found Hermes, the admirable liar, to be their appropriate patron, including themselves. So did thieves and Hermes’ skills in redistributing other people’s property did reach a metaphysical level beyond mere cattle rustling. According to some sources, it is he and not tragic Prometheus who steals the fire from the gods and bestows it upon mankind, the true trickster spirit of Greek mythology. Thus, the mercurial messenger of the gods is actually a friend to man and, by relating divine messages to mortals, becomes the highest authority on their level of existence. A role that equated the deity in ancient philosophy with “logos”, “word” as well as “meaning” and “reason”, reflected to this day in the term “hermeneutics”, a theory of text interpretation meant to disrobe truth of its symobol-clad layers of garb to get at a meaning. It is not without irony that the divine cattle rustler was, in all probability, a god of herdsmen at the very outset of his career in remote antiquity, born in a cave like Mithras and a good shepherd that helped the spirits across to the other side. And since it usually takes one to know one, Hermes Poimandres and Psychopompos was their advocate as well during the judgement of the death. No wonder Hermes formed a unity with Toth, the Egyptian god of writing and magic, as well as Anubis, another psychopompos, in the wonderful late period of old Greek civilisation known as Hellenism and became the founding father of Hermetic Magic and alchemy, highly influential if somewhat obsolete disciplines well into the early modern age that left us at least with the term “hermetically sealed”. A good thing to the alchemists of old, since the trickster’s messages were useful only to those who truly understood them while others who messed with Hermes looked rather stupid in the end.

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